A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About

By Colleen Kearney Rich on October 7, 2009

Not a day goes by that some Mason faculty member isn’t featured in the media somewhere. Whether it is economist Stephen Fuller on the radio discussing the local housing market or criminologist Faye Taxman commenting on a U.S. Department of Justice report in a national newspaper, Mason experts are getting ink—and attention.

During the last presidential election, the university enjoyed more than 100 national and international media “hits” as faculty experts weighed in on everything from debate body language to the candidates disclosing details about their health.

The topics these scholars can speak on are just about endless and run the gamut from transportation to sports to ethics to climate change. Here we look at a few who have a tendency to ignite conversations.

Bias and the Media

So who’s counting? Bob Lichter is. He is counting the hours, the minutes, and even the jokes.

Bob Lichter

Bob Lichter

Since 1985, Lichter, director of Mason’s Center for Media and Public Affairs, and his colleagues have been conducting real-time scientific studies of the news and entertainment media, U.S. elections, and health risks and science issues.

“Our scientific approach sets us apart from self-appointed media watchdog groups, while our timeliness and outreach distinguish us from traditional academic researchers,” says Lichter, who also is a communication professor at Mason.

Presidential elections are perhaps the biggest projects—and the ones that attract the most attention. Since its founding, the center has provided media analysis of six presidential elections. During these analyses, the center tracks the three major networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS) plus Fox and CNN, reporting on positive and negative coverage of candidates, campaign ads, and the political subjects of late-night talk show monologues, among other topics.

A scorecard of sorts can be found on the center’s web site. For example, when Jay Leno hosted the Tonight Show, he told more than 33,000 jokes about public figures. His favorite target was Bill Clinton.

And while Lichter is critiquing the media, he also has been critiqued. He has even enjoyed the distinction of being blasted by Bill O’Reilly of Fox News.

“People react to studies based on their views, so there will always be a debate when new information comes out; however, over time, good studies prevail and might even change some people’s minds,” says Lichter. “The truth is powerful.”

Energy’s Hot Potato

Mason geologist Allison Macfarlane supports nuclear power but acknowledges that there are a number of challenges regarding its use, including waste disposal.

Allison Macfarlane

Allison Macfarlane

“One of the most important issues facing the United States and the world is climate change,” she says. “Intimately wrapped up with that is the issue of energy—which energy choices are best for a climate-constrained world.”

In the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) began studying Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a permanent geological repository for nuclear waste. Years behind schedule, Yucca is not set to open before 2020. In the interim, about 60,000 metric tons of spent fuel is clogging storage facilities at power plants, and the Obama administration has cut Yucca’s funding and is seeking alternatives.

Macfarlane is a leading technical expert on nuclear-waste disposal, as well as an expert on Yucca. In her book, Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste (MIT Press, 2006), co-edited with Rodney Ewing of the University of Michigan, she argues that Yucca is a poor site for such a repository.

“There are geologic constraints on Yucca Mountain; it is not an endless sink for nuclear waste,” Macfarlane has said at public hearings. She recently sat on a National Research Council committee evaluating the DOE’s nuclear-power research and development programs.

“The best way to meet goals is to diversify energy supply,” she says. “Nuclear energy must be considered, and renewable energy resources must be developed. [In the United States], we haven’t had an integrated, sensible energy plan in decades, and we are facing a number of serious problems as a result.”

Faith-Based Diplomacy

Mason conflict resolution expert Marc Gopin goes where few people dare to tread.

An ordained rabbi armed with a PhD in religious ethics, Gopin has met with religious, political, and military figures around the world. His back-channel diplomacy efforts have led him to Yasser Arafat’s compound where he and Arafat shared their thoughts on the Holy Land and meetings with Wahhabi Muslim scholars in which they explored their shared cultural heritage.

Marc Gopin

Marc Gopin

The director of Mason’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution, Gopin has also lectured internationally and blogged daily on conflict resolution. His opinions and commentary have been featured across the globe, from the Jerusalem Post to Northern Ireland’s national public radio.

For his peace-building philosophy, Gopin focuses on the Jewish notion of teshuva, a term of repentance and restoration. Gopin believes teshuva is critical for a successful peace process in the Middle East.

In his latest book, To Make the Earth Whole: The Art of Citizen Diplomacy in an Age of Religious Militancy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), Gopin critiques the field of conflict resolution and diplomacy and presents a five-year case study of his citizen diplomacy work in Syria. His work in Syria began with a chance meeting with peace activist Hind Kabawat at the 2004 World Economic Forum and led to a landmark series of public dialogues, addressing not only issues within Syrian society, but also relations among Syria, the United States, and Israel.

“My hopes are placed on the young, on those who understand the power of actions over words, and the non-negotiable reality of the future of the whole planet riding on absolute equality of citizens, of human beings, that is wedded to a respect for all life,” he writes in his blog. “The more young people, from Iran to North Africa, to jump on that bandwagon and work together across enemy lines for mutual prosperity, the more that the sick ideologies of the past will die away.”

The War on Art

Critic and historian Suzanne Carbonneau is passionate about the arts and outspoken about arts funding in America. In a recent Vision Series lecture on campus, she tackled this topic.

Suzanne Carbonneau

Suzanne Carbonneau

Carbonneau sees arts funding as reaching its turning point in the 1989 U.S. Senate debate on photographer Andres Serrano. Politicians were outraged that Serrano, whose photo depicted a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine, had received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The photograph, they argued, was a disgrace and should not be supported with taxpayer money.

“Before 1989, the public had a positive opinion of the arts in this country,” says Carbonneau, a professor in Mason’s School of Art as well as a consultant to the NEA. “After this attack, all the arts were smeared with the same brush and came to stand for something particularly virulent.”

She asserts that these politicians, along with political activists, succeeded in transforming public perception of the arts virtually overnight and began the process of defunding the NEA. Rather than being seen as a public good, the arts came to be seen as a public danger, a threat to societal values.

“The attacks on the arts show us that living in a free society and the idea of free speech is a struggle,” says Carbonneau, who has served as scholar-in-residence at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and the Bates Dance Festival. “While artists feel that it is their job to ask the kinds of questions that make us think about ourselves, there is still tension between free speech and how much our values can be challenged in the public sphere.”

Carbonneau hopes that the country will progress to a time when individuals are not discouraged from asking questions about themselves and the society in which they live, and she looks forward to a time when the arts can reclaim their rightful place.

Tax Revenues Go Up in Smoke

Mason political pundit Jeremy Mayer has been busy this year. An expert on presidential elections, public opinion, and foreign policy, he can regularly be found in national media, including appearances on World News Tonight, The NewsHour, and Headline News, weighing in on anything from Pennsylvania polls on gay marriage to President Obama’s debut address to Congress.

Jeremy Mayer

Jeremy Mayer

Earlier this year, Mayer, an associate professor in Mason’s School of Public Policy, took on the topic of legalizing marijuana in a piece published on Politico.com. “We just elected our third president in a row who at least tried marijuana in early adulthood, yet it remains illegal,” he wrote in March 2009. “As we discovered again this week, President Obama, like his two predecessors, supports imprisoning people for making the same choices he made.” In his commentary, Mayer pointed out that at least eight states are considering making drug tests mandatory for food stamps, welfare, or unemployment. “In a classic demonstration of how America has always had one drug law for the rich and one for the poor, no one suggested drug testing recipients of the billions in bailout cash,” he wrote.

But Mayer, who wrote American Media Politics in Transition (McGraw Hill, 2008), believes that public opinion is slowly moving toward decriminalization, moving from 10 percent who supported legalization in 1969 to 40 percent today.

The issue has heated up lately because some California legislators have argued that legalization could help their state with its economic woes. But Mayer has an issue with the numbers. “It is always tough to estimate what total sales are for any illegal substance. Good data just don’t exist in this area.”

Yet he believes decriminalization and legalization advocates have a reason to “take cheer” from recent developments. “I do believe that the tide of history is moving against our ridiculous and counterproductive ban on this relatively harmless substance,” he wrote. “The question is not will we decriminalize, but when.”

Catherine Ferraro; Tara Laskowski, MFA ’05; and Jim Greif contributed to this story.

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